An encampment of soldiers darkened the foothills of the Hyperborean mountains, armored bodies scuttling from outcropping to outcropping like metal roaches. There was no cavalry, as the mountains were too treacherous for horses or camels, and the air too thin for the steam-powered fliers that the armies of Sangren used. There was an air of expectation around the soldiers, the same pensive excitement that the youths of certain tribes felt, before going off into the dark of night to hunt monsters as a rite of passage.
The camp was large, perhaps two leagues from edge to edge—all fighting men. The camp followers and the jackal craftsmen trailed behind in a train of goods and salesmen. The tents were low, canvass affairs arranged into long rows and kept even by barking sergeants. The walls were made of lumber scavenged from the surrounding land, and driven into the ground with mallets that the engineers carried.
Joshua Lowe swaggered through the camp like a tiger through high grass. His armor, adamanthine scales fronted with electrum scrollwork, covered every finger-span of his body from head to toe, and his helmet was hanging from the top of the three-and-a-half-cubit-long electrum cross he carried on his back. A long, thin cigarillo dangled from his lips as he scowled at the footmen. They worked all the faster to dismantle their tents upon seeing his pale, unscarred mien glaring at them, his brown eyes murderous.
They all knew about Joshua the Slave-Knight. The Imperial Captain who had the same mysterious Gift that the Auti Barbarians did. He was a man to be feared and respected—a Sangrenner who danced with Barbarian Gods, a soldier who could cleave a man from groin to chops as easily as another man could chop a block of wood.
He entered the pavilion at the center of the camp, and passed through the antechamber into the sanctum, before he knelt on the smooth, cold mat that was neither cloth nor leather nor metal.
He placed his head on the ground, and kissed the foot of the small idol that turned on the Signaler—the arcane device through which he could speak to the Emperor.
"Joshua Lowe," the voice came, first as a whisper, then a loud echo like a man speaking, "arise, my faithful servant."
Joshua raised his head, his brown hair hanging into his eyes.
"Make your report," the emperor demanded.
"Your Army will arrive at the Hyperborean City before the sun sets, Your Radiance, they have long used the mountains as barriers, and did not think that they would have to confront an infantry attack. Coincidentally, their walls are thin, more suited to keeping out the creatures of the mountains than Your sappers."
"Good. Make sure that you kill all of the daemons that have taken up residence there. Kill all the fighting men. Kill all the clergy. Kill all the children. Allow the men who do not fight and the women to live. Take from each of them their right eye."
The Emperor—a tall, robust man in his early thirties, with orange eyes—grinned a maniac's grin.
"It is to let them know that we could have killed them whenever we wished. That we have destroyed them...emasculated them and taken their future away. Then, to finish it off, we make their bodies reflect their lack of vision."
Joshua thought for a moment.
"Your servant is not sure that he understands Your Radiance's plan, but Your servant, as always will comply."
"Good. See that it is done."
Joshua bowed down, and kissed the idol's foot, before he stood and left.
The Slave-Knights were the elite of the Sangrenner army. They wore armor of Adamanthine scale, boosted by the arcane artifice of the Werk, which increased the strength of the Knights tenfold. Each knight carried a Werked Blade, that attached itself to his right arm, and, governed by a familiar woven into the gauntlet of the armor, seemingly fought for itself.
Joshua was thankful for this fact, because the armor felt much lighter than it actually was. The Footmen with their rifles labored under the weight of their gear, climbing mountains at a snail's pace, while the Slave-Knights could attain the same pace while circling the column.
The mountains themselves were steep and treacherous, the soil was the color of dust, and promontories of rock jutted up from them like titans' teeth. Creatures lived in the mountain; Both Natural and Other.
The natural creatures were dangerous, including the short-faced bear, a seven-cubit monstrosity that could smell a lone man from a mile away, and be upon him in a matter of minutes. But they weren't the kings of the mountain.
The Halfmen of Hyperborea had called nameless things out of the oceans, their malleable flesh reshaping to suit the land. Avatars of the Inner Ones, or possibly even the Inner Ones themselves. If so, Joshua prayed for the grace of the Golden One for protection.
He had seen some of the monstrosities before, in the forests of the Braedon province. They had all been different—amalgamations of frog skin, fur and giant teeth. One of them had looked like an ape, twice the height of a man with the skin of a newt and a head like the body of a giant insect, he had seen it kill a dozen footmen before finally being felled by a grenadier.
It was the fault of the Auti that this war was continuing. They had long preyed on Sangren and Pebe cities, fighting against encroaching progress. It had been entirely possible for them to join the empire, they could have been a part of the greatest culture in the world, but as it stood, they continued with their pagan worship of the Inner Ones.
But now they had even taken the war as far as Lemnos, to the Gardens of the Androsynth, and that was unforgivable. If ever the Sangren had owed a debt to any in the world, it would be to the sages of Samarkande on Lemnos.
And thus, the Sangrenner troops had been sent against the last true stronghold of the Auti Halfmen, Hyperborea. If they took the city, then it would truly be a magnificent day for the Empire.
If they took Hyperborea, then Joshua Lowe of the Slave-Knights just might go down in the lore of the empire as one of the greatest heroes that ever lived.
An hour before nightfall they were upon the city, and the sappers had been sent forward under cover fire from the infantrymen. They planted dynamite charges along the base of the wall, and set the timers, then retreated to their units, where they would pick up their rifles, unburdened of heavy explosives, and join the infantrymen.
Joshua and the six-dozen other Slave-Knights moved to the front of the army, locking their war-blades into place on their dominant hands. Joshua was at the front, and all of the right-handed men were to his right, as the left-handed men arrayed themselves to that side.
There was a terrible noise as the dynamite exploded, the walls collapsed, forming a wide breach in the thin walls. The Sangrenner troops raised a keening war cry, a piercing ululation that sounded like the gates of the underworld had been flung wide, and all the vengeful ghosts contained within had exploded into the dimmed sunlight.
Joshua and his contingent began to march forward. Grabbing the handle of his war-blade's cord, he gave it a sharp tug, spinning a flywheel inside and starting some arcane mechanism. The blade seemed to blur, and he rushed forward, the two and a half cubit sword spinning through the air.
His knights followed, and they parted ways once they had passed through the walls.
The Hyperboreans had not managed to gather a suitable defense, but they were raising the call—militiamen were emerging from the houses, some hefting bardiches, others buckling swords or loading rifles. He was struck by how much they looked like Sangrenners: tall, blonde-haired men and women with azure eyes. Of course, a few were muties: this one had an extra finger on each hand; this one a tail; this one was eyeless but possessed antennae like a slug.
The fighters weren't all men. Here and there were amazons dressed in the harness of a soldier or mitered as a witch-saint. He grimaced at that—he did not wish to fight women. It was unavoidable, though. After all, his orders still stood, no matter his personal beliefs.
A bardiche struck his left arm, causing the muted scrape of metal on ceramic. He struck blindly at his assailant, grinning behind his death's-head mask. There was no resistance to his war-blade, it struck the man a killing blow across his midriff, the vibrations scissoring him in half with the ease of a knife cutting off the head of a daisy. A spray of blood erupted from each divided half, and the knight moved on.
He took the head off of a swordsman, discoloring his blade the violet of his mutie blood. It landed in the street with a sickening thud, and Joshua stepped on his corpse moving to the next target.
A pair of riflemen shot at me from a street-level window, and I made a backhanded stroke at them, slicing through wall and warriors alike.
It was then that he heard the chanting of a witch-saint, a small woman with short brown hair. She had terror in her eyes as she gestured at Joshua, she was brave for facing the lusterless monstrosity of the Sangrenner elite.
"Gog…Magog…Moon of argent light, the gate of the netherworld…Open and relinquish from the Inside…I summon you, O Monarch of all things that crawl in darkness and gnaw at the roots of mountains, Come to me, oh Angel of Vengeance!"
There was a feeling of the earth shifting, and Joshua knew he had to stop her from completing her ritual.
He leapt forward, and plunged the blade between her small breasts. It emerged from her back like a murderous butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. With a flourish, he dismembered her corpse and removed the blade.
Joshua wished he hadn't been forced to do that. She hadn't been bad looking, and not a mutie at all.
"Another sin to add to the mountain you have been building, Joshua Karcis Lowe? I am disappointed in you."
It was a voice that sounded like the crawling of maggots. He had a feeling of inexplicable repulsion to the origin of the voice, and turned to face it.
There was a tall man standing there, wearing a black jacket of some fine material, with two silver pips at the collar. Beneath that, he wore a white, collarless shirt, and his pants were of a coarser material than his coat, but colored blue. He was shod in odd flat-soled shoes, with white laces. The man's skin was pale, and his eyes were pink. His hair was the purest white that Joshua had ever seen.
Joshua readied his blade, leveling it at the newcomer.
"You Sangrenners…you 'Pure Bloods'…you ruin everything. You started this war, and now you annihilate these people for simply wanting to live free…I can't imagine anything so stupid."
"We offered them a better way of life," Joshua growled, "but they spat on that gift! We would've raised them out of their pagan ways! We would've purified them of their black sins, but they don't even know the folly of their ways! Under our guidance, they could've begun a new Fourth Age! How could we let such monstrosities survive?"
"Pagan? You know not pagan, my friend, and you're no one to try and raise them out of this…you're no Yaisuah bin Yusef…but I suppose that doesn't matter. If their sins are black, then yours are the deepest fuligin."
Joshua lunged forward, flicking his wrist, he sliced through the man's left arm, and the blade emerged from the right shoulder. Blood bubbled from that wound like oil from a deep well, slowly oozing from the rent flesh, and the body did not fall.
He looked down, and saw the part he had cut off was decomposing into thick blood, with silver flecks in it. The blood formed tendrils of viscous fluid, which slithered towards the man's body, climbing up his leg, and finally planting into the wound like tree roots. The fluid boiled and frothed, reforming his head and arm.
"What are you doing?" The man asked, his lip curling into a manic smile, "You should know that it is impossible for you kill me. Your blade is useless because of what I am."
Joshua stepped back, and began to chant, it was a guttural, undulating noise. He gestured with his left hand, and then pulled the cord on his war-blade with his teeth. The blade was surrounded by a scarlet aura, a halo of fire.
At that same moment, the other man seemed to grow, he loomed a whole cubit taller than Jacob. His eyes, formerly an albino pink, became two crimson stars.
With a scream of rage and frustration, Joshua leapt forward, slicing at his opponent. The other man's blood was no longer oily, but sprayed in thick gouts of red that drenched the streets, Joshua's armor, Joshua's legs. It got inside his mask, and into his eyes, into its mouth. It tasted acidic and coppery, burning his mouth and making his nose bleed.
The other man wasn't even fazed by the wounds, he simply kept laughing, and Joshua finally allowed the point of his blade to drop to the earth. Even with the mechanisms protecting him, he couldn't continue.
The other man's two giant hands reached down, and gently removed his helmet. Joshua looked up at him, and felt true terror for the first time in his life.
He was now nearly eight cubits tall, a huge hole in existence. It was like he wasn't really there—like he was a giant man-shaped window into some nightmare realm. There was the sound like a titanic slithering, and Joshua felt more of the man's blood drip onto him: into his hair, down his shoulders and into his armor, tracing rivulets across his flesh.
"Who…What are you…?" Joshua asked, terrified.
The other man grinned, displaying a mouth full of finger-long teeth like razor blades. His crimson eyes flashed. Opening his mouth, the other man stuck out a tube-like tongue of banded flesh that had to be a cubit long, and licked his chops.
The man-thing said six words to Joshua, before the former Slave-Knight of Sangren died screaming.